How to Read a Turkey’s Language
By Josh Wolfe
Turkey hunting has long been an obsession of many a men and women who tend to let their enthusiasm boil out of the woods and into the office, home, and bar room. In other words, it’s an innate wound that festers in spring and being amongst these wily birds is the only cure.
Most of us have no problem crediting Meleagris gallopavo with providing the most fun and the most frustration of any game animal a hunter will face in North America. Not only do turkeys see and hear well, they also possess a sense that some might consider supernatural.
We’ve all been there. A gobbler is closing the distance and we’re already thinking about how to prepare him. Forty yards, 35, he steps behind a tree, but you’ll take him when he comes out the other side. Only he doesn’t. And he’s never to be seen again. Turkeys do things like that.
While it seems like you’ve got him dead to rights, it’s never that simple. Just when his body disappears out of sight behind the tree, his head kicks back and catches your movement as you try to ever so slowly swing your shotgun into position. You don’t know that he’s seen you and he’s not going to say anything as he quietly slinks off in the other direction.
What we ultimately look for while trying to read a turkey’s body language is an indication as to its current state of mind. Can I call this turkey? Should I break out the reaping decoy? Has he already seen me?
A grown turkey - hen or gobbler - can light a shuck and be in the next county while you’re still wondering what the hell just happened. Get to know their body language just a bit better and it may just help keep you in the white meat for a little longer after the spring has once again passed us by.
Let’s start with something that seems rather simple. Most of us know what the strut means, right? He’s hot, he’s looking, he may have hens nearby. If it happens to be your calls that have caused him to puff up, get ready, things look promising, but aren’t necessarily a sure thing. For example, there are those times when a strutter seems to be heading right on into the decoys only to stop and turn around some 80 yards out, showing you the backside of his fan.
When this does happen, and it will, don’t get impatient or discouraged and especially don’t let your guard down. That gobbler has probably been around for a few springs and is exuding ultimate caution by trying to get your hen to unhinge herself from the earth and come out to him. At this critical juncture, quit calling. That old tom is telling you that he’s not sure what to do next. If you continue to call, he’ll likely think you’re overly interested and wait for you to come out. In the name of love, shut up and let him make the next move.
Looking at a gobbler’s head is about the best way to guess how he’s feeling. A relaxed tom usually maintains white or light blue shades while one that is worked up will have a head full of blood that will be dark red.
If at any time a bird appears as though he’s coming in on a string, but suddenly stops, lifts his head up and comes out of full strut, his head will start turning red with worry. Perhaps he’s seen you move or something just doesn’t feel right about his current situation. Remember how turkeys have that odd sense that makes them seem telepathic?
There are two pieces of advice you may consider if ever thrown into this predicament. First, if a gobbler stops and comes out of strut short of shotgun range and is looking intently at his surroundings, be patient or let him go. So often turkey hunters make the futile mistake of attempting a long shot. Save your heartache and shotgun shell for another day.
Secondly, if he’s performed the same movements within the boundaries of your shotgun’s range, then by God shoot! Again, this bird is becoming increasingly nervous as the seconds tick away and is very likely about to avoid the deep fryer.
Study the Snood
Funny word, snood - the fleshy protuberance hanging from the head of a gobbler. We follow with this because after reading the color of a turkey’s head, the snood is also an indicator for whether a gobbler is calm or flighty.
If he’s relaxed, that snood is going to dangle, especially when he’s bowed up. It will contract about the same time he senses danger and leaves strut mode, which means the gig may be up. Again, if he’s close enough, fire.
Lay Me Down
A curious thing happened recently while attempting to reap a gobbler with the Wiley Tom decoy. It involved several hens. The tom refused to leave his strut zone a couple hundred yards down a farm road that runs through a big hay field. Scooting along, Wiley Tom in one hand and shotgun in the other, we crept down that road, intruders ready to give the incumbent bird what for. All of a sudden, five hens appeared on the road some 70 yards ahead and made a beeline to the decoy. At two feet, three of them laid down, side by side by side, facing the opposite direction. Apparently, they felt the need to show our Wiley Tom their affectionate appreciation. Long story short, the “real” gobbler came over the rise and when he saw what was going on, it was mere seconds before he was involuntarily kicking the dust up.
Turkeys can drive you mad if you’re not careful. Be patient when hunting these wily birds, and try not to get over anxious because more times than not, you’re going to fail. But then again, who is to say that a beautiful spring morning - the air warming, dogwoods blooming - suggests anything about failure?